By Ted Roebuck
Being a music fan in 2020 wasn’t easy - every tour got canceled, fan-favourites pushed back releases to 2021, and the heavy losses of Juice WRLD, Pop Smoke, and King Von, among too many others. Still, we got a handful of solid albums this year - here are some of my favourites that helped me get through 2020.
(I also made a Spotify playlist including all the songs I mentioned on here.)
Full disclosure, though:
This is entirely my opinion, and I mostly listen to rap and a bit of RnB. This isn’t meant to be a be-all-end-all end of the year list.
I’m not including full-length deluxes; but if I did, the ones for Revenge Of The Dreamers III, The Life Of Pierre 4, and Lil Uzi vs.The World 2 would totally be on here.
This only includes albums from 2020 - not including November-December 2019.
With that being said, these are my favourite albums of 2020.
10. Drake - Dark Lane Demo Tapes
Favourite Songs: Time Flies, Chicago Freestyle, From Florida With Love
Okay, okay, I know this is a safe pick, but I wasn't expecting to like this album as much as I did. Sure, there may have been a couple listens I’d like to forget about on here - Toosie Slide, Drake’s UK accent on War, and Playboi Carti’s verse on Pain 1993 while going through his baby-voice phase. Still, it’s mixtape Drake, the same mindset shift that made If You’re Reading This It’s Too Late. While Scorpion’s focus was mostly on making pop hits like Nice For What and God’s Plan, Drake puts a stronger emphasis on the album cuts for DLDT. A good example of this would be Chicago Freestyle’s live drums and phenomenal hook from Giveon, or Losses slow, moody beat giving a backdrop for Drake’s best bars on the project while still giving off a heartbroken, RnB vibe. Though there are some inconsistent mixes, this is still a solid collection of songs, holding fans over until he drops Certified Lover Boy in January. Drake doesn't sound like he’s trying too hard to fill out quotas for bangers or pop songs - just trying out some new sounds while staying tried and true with his songwriting.
9. Kid Cudi - Man On The Moon III
Favourite Songs: Solo Dolo Pt. III, Show Out, Another Day
Kid Cudi brings his influence full-circle on MOTM3. His vulnerable, psychedelic, and rock-influenced music of the late 2000s and early 2010s have had profound impacts on current superstars like Travis Scott, A$AP Rocky, SAINt JHN, Trippie Redd, Juice WRLD, and Lil Uzi Vert. MOTM3 is a 2020 update of Cudi’s sound, with Take A Daytrip handling most of the production on here. The heavier use of autotune and trap beats is a welcome addition to his already versatile style, and fits perfectly with his recognizable voice, adlibs and humming. His hook game is still his strong suit - the ones on Another Day, She Knows This and Heaven On Earth are some of the biggest highlights here. It might not be the strongest conceptual piece like some of his previous albums, (Man On The Moon, Kids See Ghosts) but more of an acknowledgement of his influence and a victory lap of always staying true to himself over his long career.
8. 21 Savage & Metro Boomin - Savage Mode II
Favourite Songs: Runnin, Glock In my Lap, Brand New Draco
Savage Mode II might not have the same importance as the first, being a big part of the soundshift in the mid-2010s and putting 21 on the map as a name to watch. Still, Savage Mode II has a longer tracklist, more features and a more diverse beat selection. Oh; and the whole thing is narrated by none other than Morgan Freeman! There’s now room for songs like RIP Luv and Mr. Right Now that might not have meshed with his horror-movie inspired 2016 sound. He still delivers that really well, (Many Men, Snitches & Rats, No Opp Left Behind) but it expands upon I Am > I Was’ ability to explore new song topics and sounds while keeping his authenticity intact. Coming off Not All Heroes Wear Capes, Metro Boomin is still Metro Boomin - his dark melodies and excellent sampling are just as good as ever. Out of all the albums this year, this might have the most replay value for me, both front to back and as singles.
7. Kenny Mason - Angelic Hoodrat
Favourite Songs: Hit, Angelic Hoodrat, Chevron
I discovered Kenny in November of 2019 when the video for Hit popped up on my recommended, and it instantly became one of my favourite tracks of early 2020. He reminded me a lot of fellow Atlanta artists JID and Earthgang - creative and barsy with a penchant to sing on occasions. Kenny delivers that on here, using a wide variety of production, even surprising my expectations by sprinkling in some grunge-ish rock songs like Lean and Pretty Thoughts, and straight up genre-mashing on Metal Wings and Exxon/U In A Gang. His strengths still lie in his rapping ability, like on Firestarter, Angelic Hoodrat, PTSD, Chevron and Hit. Kenny puts his full musical and mood range on display for Angelic, and at 25, he seems wise beyond his years. This album is dark and gritty, but still hopeful and as a debut album, it’s just as ambitious as it is humble, a combination that’s always hard to find.
6. Freddie Gibbs and Alchemist - Alfredo
Favourite Songs: Frank Lucas, Scottie Beam, God Is Perfect
After locking in with Madlib for Pinata and Bandana, and Kenny Beats for Freddie, Gibbs is no stranger to full rapper-producer projects. He’s built up one of the best legacies in rap history, and Alfredo is a continuation of that. The same could be said about Alchemist as a producer, who also got put to work by Boldy James (Price Of Tea In China) and Conway The Machine (Lulu) with full collab projects this year. Resumes aside, Alfredo, at ten tracks, wastes no time, leaving fans wanting more. Freddie’s rapping and flowing are at the height of his ability, and so are the features; Benny The Butcher, Conway, Tyler, The Creator, and Rick Ross. Benny especially gives what I think might be one of - if not the best - verse of his career on Frank Lucas. Alchemist’s simple loops, dreamy samples and light drums contrast really well with Freddie’s aggressive rapping, a similar space to what Madlib did with Bandana, but more laid back.
Favourite Songs: Shimmy, Riri, My Reality
The only thing that feels missing is the fact that there were no huge hits on here like Caroline or Reel It In, but in all fairness, we didn’t have many functions to play this at when it dropped. This is Amine’s best project, hands down. It’s less playful than Good For You or ONEPOINTFIVE, but Amine is still making what he calls “Vitamin C genre” music. Everything feels a bit more refined, as he has some of his best bars of his career on Shimmy, Pressure In My Palms, and Burden, and a newfound maturity in his songwriting shines through on Fetus, Roots and My Reality. The album is just as poppy and fun as it is well-written and produced. Amine continues to show he’s one of the most creative and versatile artists out right now with Limbo.
4. Denzel Curry & Kenny Beats - Unlocked
Favourite Songs: Lay_Up.m4a, Cosmic.m4a, So.Incredible.pkg
Unlocked is something nobody expected, but nobody was surprised by either. Being some of the most consistent rappers and producers of the past half-decade, Denzel and Kenny are a perfect fit. Considering both have made careers off hard-hitting songs with trap beats, an entire project with old-school drums and samples wasn’t my first idea of what a full collab tape would sound like, even after their Wu-Tang inspired finale episode of The Cave. Still, they manage to pull off this sound like seasoned vets. Unlocked’s punchy drums, random vocal skits and bouncy backing percussion with Denzel’s aggressive and witty rapping makes for a fun, unpredictable, and animated twenty-two minutes. Unlocked sounds like what it feels like playing a retro video game, watching cartoons or reading comics. The short film that goes along with the album is great too, using a different art style for each song, from Cowboy Bebop to Robot Chicken.
3. Westside Gunn - Pray For Paris
Favourite Songs: George Bondo, $500 Ounces, 327
Admittedly, I didn’t know much about Griselda Records, let alone each of its members, before this year. In fact, I might not have checked out this project at all if I didn’t see the production credits from Tyler, The Creator. I thought it’d be more of an acquired taste, but the experience is comparable to listening to an old Kanye album; gritty drums, soul samples, smart bars and odd production choices (like tap dancing percussion on the outro Le Djoliba?) make this project a breath of fresh air in 2020. It has an absolutely loaded feature cast as well; everybody from Griselda mainstays like Benny, Conway and Boldy James, to legends like Freddie Gibbs, Wale and Roc Marciano, and younger stars like Tyler, The Creator and Joey Bada$$. Every guest verse feels like a standout, though my favourite is definitely Benny’s part on George Bondo. Westside is in his comfort zone here, with the backdrop of Paris Fashion Week being the perfect way to contrast pretty, soulful beats with his gruff personality and lyrics about his dark past.
2. Don Toliver - Heaven or Hell
Favourite Songs: No Photos, No Idea, Spaceship
Not gonna lie, I had super high expectations for Heaven or Hell, as he built hype around addictive singles like No Idea and being the star player of Jackboys. It might not have been a tracklist of twelve Can’t Says, but this still felt like everything I wanted from a Don Toliver album. Wavy production from Wondagurl and Cubeatz, outros courtesy of Mike Dean, and catchy hooks with Don’s unique vocals are a combination that made me keep coming back to it over and over again. The beats, songwriting, and singing all feel like a huge step up from his last full-length project Donny Womack in 2018. With his chopped and screwed sound, Don kept the vibes chill for me this year, something we all needed through the first leg of quarantine.
Favourite Songs: Escape From LA, Heartless, Too Late
Not too many albums have had the combination of quality and popularity like After Hours. And rightfully so - even with how strong The Weeknd’s catalogue has been over the past decade, this feels like his strongest and most mature project to date. Even with pop smashes that were Blinding Lights and Heartless, the album cuts like the storytelling track Snowchild or the paranoid ballad Escape From LA are some of the best on here. This is everything you’d expect from a Weeknd project - moody, atmospheric, genre-bending RnB; but the stakes feel a bit higher. After Hours feels like he’s finally cracked the code he’s been looking for his whole career - balancing dark song topics and undertones with pop sounds and appeal over a whole project. Conceptually tight, with only one real skip in my opinion, (Hardest To Love) After Hours is a beautifully produced, emotional experience that should be considered a classic in the next few years. Also to note: Metro Boomin’s trap drums and filtered melodies make for some of the best songs on this project, (Escape From LA, Heartless, Faith, Until I Bleed Out) and the GRAMMYs missed out for snubbing not only The Weeknd, but denying Metro for a Producer Of The Year nom, especially considering his work on Savage Mode II as well.